Gateshead 15 Alnwick 16
Durham and Northumberland Division One
The pundits say that it is a sign of a good team that when they play badly they still win, writes Bob Bingham.
So it proved on Saturday when Alnwick came from behind to maintain their promotion bid with a one-point victory over fourth-place Gateshead Fell in freezing conditions.
Fell had their chance to win the game with a long-range penalty with the last kick of the game but it fell short.
Gateshead fielded a team as per programme whereas Alnwick had either personnel or positional change to all 18 positions.
Despite this, early pressure was exerted by the visitors and after some indeterminate midfield play Alnwick showed that they could retain the ball when they tried and, after six phases, Gateshead offended with hands in a ruck and gave O’Grady his first shot at goal and he duly obliged (0-3).
From the restart, Gateshead put pressure on Alnwick and, at times, the visitors’ defence was scrambled with a kick being charged down. Alnwick could, and did, fight back, but a strong run out of defence by Brown resulted in him losing the ball and Gateshead surged forward, which led to some vigorous exchanges and Alnwick were penalised.
The penalty count against Alnwick was mounting and, this time, Foster opted to kick at goal and he succeeded in levelling the scores (3-3) with 15 minutes gone.
The next score went to Alnwick five minutes later. Battling downfield, the visitors again went through several phases of possession until, in front of the posts, Gateshead were caught offside and O’Grady stroked the ball over to give Alnwick the lead (3-6).
Gateshead came back strongly from the restart and, having already shown they had some strong runners in their back division, moved the ball out from a line-out to centre Tilley, who slipped his tackler and made ground down the centre to feed his partner Heelbeck, who raced over to score despite the covering tackle from Potts. Foster converted (10-6).
The game now see-sawed, with both sides trying to gain ground and both being halted by technical errors, offences and poor execution.
Gateshead missed with two penalty-kicks and Alnwick, despite good runs by Ali Gray and others, made no headway.
The home side then countered smartly from an Alnwick restart and moved the ball down the left and gained a line-out on the visitors’ five-metre line. Gaining possession, they drove for the Alnwick line but were halted by fierce defence so they moved the ball quickly left and lock Aslet crashed over in the corner. It was too far out for Foster, the kick failed (15-6) and the ref blew for half-time.
Sadly, the Gateshead skipper Jonathon Charlton had suffered a neck injury necessitating an ambulance and the game was halted for 20 minutes while he was taken from the field.
With a handy lead and a slight wind advantage, Gateshead set out to seal the victory and for the next 20 minutes or so, they pressed in the Alnwick half with a long period close to the line.
They must have thought they had cracked it when centre Heelbeck broke clear only for skipper Andrew Shell to save the day with a fine covering tackle.
The penalty count against Alnwick was building and Alexander was yellow-carded for his over-robust defence. However, the only kickable chance for Gateshead was missed.
The last quarter of the game belonged to Alnwick.
For all the fumbling and bumbling, this is a team that does not give in. They surged into the Gateshead half with darting runs by Ian Gray and brother Ali and, in one of their few breaks in open play, Johnson broke clear, only to knock on 15 metres out.
Alnwick turned the home side over at the resultant scrum and drove linewards.
Gateshead had no reply and the drive continued, with Boothman powering over close to the posts and O’Grady added the points (15-13).
Gateshead tried to get back in the driving seat and a penalty for hands in the ruck saw them kick into the Alnwick corner but a line-out steal by the veteran Currie saw their plans frustrated and Alnwick weathered the storm with some good work by Johnson.
Alnwick then returned to the Gateshead half via a fine break by Ali Gray but his long pass to Andrew Shell was forward. Again Alnwick turned the home side over and drove towards the Gateshead posts, perhaps fearing a repeat of the first try Gateshead came over the top in the ruck and were penalised.
The cool O’Grady made it 100 per cent for the day and Alnwick had the lead (15-16).
The home side were not finished yet. but had only three minutes left. The game ended in high drama, with Foster being asked to kick a long penalty. His kick was accurate but short and the final whistle was greeted with Alnwick cheers of relief.
Alnwick: S Ord, A Shell, A Gray, E Shell, G Potts, N O’Grady, I Gray, D Hamblin (A Johnson 40), H Sordy, B Boothman, M Currie, An Alexander, R Thompson, G Smith, P Brown. Sub not used: A Bell. Ref: Jared Jansen (Edinburgh)